- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

First, who knew that Ann Hathaway, Shakespeare’s largely invisible spouse, the person whose name adorns the lovely shrine to Elizabethan domestic fortitude in Stratford, England, has had centuries of detractors. Germaine Greer knows, and in this spirited accounting, Ms. Greer shows how (mostly male) scholars over time have made the case that Ann was a difficult woman and an unloved wife.

Not so, says Ms. Greer, and with her own scholarship sets out to prove that Shakespeare did indeed love his wife, that his writings illustrate such and that centuries of misguided historians, some with dubious agendas, simply cannot prove otherwise.

Does Ms. Greer have her own agenda? It is impossible not to remember that Ms. Greer is the author of the 1970 feminist blockbuster “The Female Eunuch,” which, among other things argued that male attitudes toward women compromised female self-esteem and sexuality. While it is sometimes hard not to see the arguments Ms. Greer makes here as part of a continuum, the intervening years have allowed her to find a good grounding in Shakespeare scholarship and it is this — and humor — that mitigates what otherwise might have been merely a new round of old feminist grievances.

Ms. Greer writes in her introduction to the book: “Anyone steeped in western literary culture must wonder why any woman of spirit would want to be a wife… . If Homer, Aesop, Plautus, Terence, Virgil, Horace and Juvenal had wives they have been obliterated from history. The wives who are remembered are those who are vilified, like Socrates’ Xanthippe and Aristotle’s Phyllis.”

It is probably Ms. Greer at her most pointed, for throughout the rest of the book, the tone she takes is for the most part measured. Focused on retrieving the scant historical information we have about the families of Shakespeare and Hathaway, analyzing those Shakespeare texts which may hold clues and formulating a theory about what Ann’s contribution to the First Folio may have been, the writing is for the most part not argumentative.

Readers learn Ann was born around 1556 to “the extensive and reputable family of Hathaway alias Gardner of Shottery,” and that she was 26 years old when she married William Shakespeare, eight years her junior and the son of a glove maker. Ms. Greer does an admirable job of dissecting Elizabethan society. She argues that it was not uncommon for younger men to court older women and she presents an interesting discussion of female literacy — more women read back then than might be imagined.

The rise and fall of Shakespeare’s father is recounted, and the role of Shakespeare’s mother in his life is acknowledged: “Mary Shakespeare was the person who taught the most eloquent Englishman who ever lived the use of his native tongue.” Ms. Greer then digresses to devilish effect:

“Most of Shakespeare’s heroes and heroines are motherless. The few mothers who do appear in Shakespeare’s plays are anything but motherly, from the cannibal mother Tamora in Titus Andronicus to the neurotically affected mother of Juliet, the mother of Richard III who curses her womb and the Countess of Rosillion in All’s Well who simply dislikes her son. At best mothers are ineffectual, like Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, Lady Faulconbridge in King John and Lady Macduff, and at worst depraved, like Gertrude and Lady Macbeth.”

Ann was likely wooed by the young Will’s poetry, and was pregnant when the couple married. They had three children, two who lived until adulthood, and the sections of the book detailing the birth of the children and Shakespeare’s subsequent distance from the family is revealing.

There are those who argue that the shotgun wedding supports a view put forward most recently by Stephen Greenblatt in “Will in the World” that Shakespeare disliked Ann, a view upheld by those who see in Shakespeare’s behavior throughout his life and in his will at its end an absence of affection toward Ann. Nevertheless and throughout the book Ms. Greer marshals evidence to the contrary, most effectively in analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays.

What hovers over the book is the author’s view that “All biographies of Shakespeare are houses built of straw, but there is good straw and rotten straw, and some houses are better built than others.”

Ms. Greer’s is a well-built house, but she is fully aware that her arguments to the contrary cannot be proven any more than can the arguments of those she opposes. The book ends somewhat defensively but feisty still: “The defenders of Ann Hathaway are usually derided as sentimental when they are trying simply to be fair. It is a more insidious variety of sentimentality that wants to believe that women who are ill treated must have brought it upon themselves.”

In the end, Ms. Greer and Ann are rescued by “the creator of Hero, Desdemona, Imogen and Heremione” who “knew better.” She writes, “Ann might say like Lady Macduff:

“‘I have done no harm. But I remember now / I am in this earthly world, where to do harm /Is often laudable, to do good sometime / Accounted dangerous folly. Why then, alas, / Do I put up that womanly defence / To say I have done no harm?’”

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